November 12, 1998
Jewish producer Lynda Obst has survived Hollywood, and now writes her own ticket
On the old Paramount Ranch deep in the San Fernando Valley, Woodstock has returned -- as in the world's greatest love-in, the '60s festival that affected a generation. Producer Lynda Obst, who is responsible for this unnerving flashback, watches intensely from the sidelines with a proprietary eye.
She attended the real thing back in 1969 and she wants to make sure the re-creation stays true to the original. Some 300 extras mill about in front of her, with long bleached hair, tie-dyed shirts, headbands, bodies wrapped in U.S. flags -- and that's just the men. The women with flowers in their hair are clothed in ankle length dresses and bellbottoms. Psychedelic painted buses are parked nearby. Incense burns, however the odor of marijuana is absent, just to keep everything legal.
Every so often an actor breaks from the milling ranks and runs to Obst. Like a general inspecting troops she smiles then waves him back.
The whole process is bringing back vivid memories of her own Woodstock experience: "I remember driving my car in reverse for about 12 miles to get out of the mud," she recalls.
In fact, in absolute defiance of the old adage about the '60s: 'If you can remember it, you weren't there," there isn't much about the whole thing Obst can't recall in almost obsessive detail. On this subject she's an expert. In fact her four-hour miniseries, "The Sixties," (airing on NBC in February) and the reason she's at the Paramount Ranch, is based on "The Rolling Stone History of the Sixties," which she authored.
For Obst, a magazine editor turned movie producer ("Fisher King," "Hope Floats," "One Fine Day," "Contact"), working in TV is a whole new experience after almost 20 years in features. "The Sixties" comes hot on the heels of the launch this month of "The Siege," the latest terrorist-threat-to-America movie, starring Denzel Washington, Annette Bening and Bruce Willis, and directed by Ed Zwick.
If "The Siege" appears to be yet another wannabe blockbuster, blow-'em-up action flick, Obst insists: "It's not an action movie in pursuit of the dollar. It's an action movie that may also get people thinking."
But while there's heavy spending riding on the outcome of the potential blockbuster, for Obst it's clear that "The Sixties" is her personal passion.
As the hundreds of extras work themselves up into a wild passionate dance frenzy under a special effects rainstorm, she explains why, after a slew of hit movies, she's bothering with TV.
"I haven't really had a reason to do TV until NBC came up with the idea," Obst says. "This is near and dear to me. In many ways I've wanted to find a way to tackle the '60s all my career. They wanted a kind of Ragtime blend of history. I had done the book and knew here was the reason to do a miniseries. TV is the right medium. It's so epic, so much happened and all we've been able to do is a slice of that era."
The NBC documdrama follows three families as they grow up and become part of the counterculture, affected in various ways by the cataclysms of the era.
"We mix our family stories in between history and archival footage: Bobby Kennedy's assassination, civil rights marches, the Vietnam War. One of our characters is at RFK headquarters when Bobby is assassinated. We all saw it in news footage and felt it in our daily lives."
As the oldest of three ("That's how I got so bossy," she laughs), Obst grew up in a Jewish home in affluent Westchester County, N.Y., admitting she was spoiled by her garment industry executive father and her schoolteacher mother who provided her with a snazzy sports car as soon as she turned 16.
A graduate of Pomona College, she started out in publishing as editor/author of the "Sixties" history. She then spent three years at the New York Times Magazine covering a wide range of stories.
In l979 she moved to the West Coast with her then husband, agent David Obst, who came to L.A. to start Simon and Schuster Productions. But it was Lynda who was hired by the couple's friend Peter Guber to develop scripts at his Casablanca/Polygram Productions.
"I'd just had a baby (son Oliver, now 20), and Peter offered me a job, not having any idea of whether I could do it or not. In those days all a woman had to do was to be able to have proper behavior at a meeting, know how to dispense water and give notes on scripts. He figured at the very least I could probably do the serving water part."
From the bottom of the executive pile, Obst toiled hard to develop "Flashdance" as a movie. It was a major hit, although in the end she had to be satisfied with an associate producer credit.
She left Guber to work with producer David Geffen and then, in the mid-'80s teamed up with Debra Hill to produce "Adventures in Babysitting," with actress Elisabeth Shue. Four years later (also with Hill but under her own banner), she produced the Robin Williams' urban fairy story, "The Fisher King," followed by two Nora Ephron directed films, "This is My Life," with Julie Kavner and Samantha Mathis, and "Sleepless in Seattle," with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Assorted other hits have followed.
In 1996 Obst wrote a witty primer on making it and surviving in Hollywood, her best-selling book, "Hello He Lied, and Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches," but there is little about her personal background or insider gossip. The book takes the Hollywood "high road" and chronicles her adventures as a woman trying to get recognized in the male-dominated movie hierarchy.
But by the time the tome came out, Obst was no longer struggling. She had acquired power and clout on her own.
"For the first time leading actors request meetings with me and not just the director," she wrote. "Marketing departments change their advertisement campaigns when I feel they're not up to par. Things have gotten easier, so it's now possible for me to directly affect the quality of my own work. I am no longer at the mercy of the 'gatekeepers'... I am responsible for the work that appears on the screen."
Things have changed all around since she wrote the book, she comments while on the set of "The Sixties," citing the fact that now five woman make key decisions at different studios across town. "But even though we've got as many women picking pictures as men," she insists, "the ultimate ownership of the companies, the Wall Street part of the equation, is still in the hands of the guys."
Even with her success, the 48-year-old producer admits launching a new project is still no cakewalk. She has been trying to get the rights to the story of Richard Jewell, the security guard wrongly accused by the FBI of being behind the 1996 Olympic park bombing in Atlanta, made into a movie. She optioned a Vanity Fair story on Jewell's ordeal and hopes to get the project under way now that writer-director David Mamet has shown interest in the story.
Perseverance, Obst explains, is the name of the Hollywood game.
"I'm like an elephant, I never lose interest, never forget and always have something on the backburner. I never cease trying unless it's not good. Then you have to stop hitting your head against the wall."